When Ginger Gaffney arrives to consult at an alternative-sentencing program on a ranch in New Mexico where the inmate-residents have lost control of their horses, she feels, understandably, overwhelmed. Not only are the horses in a state of overt rebellion, but some of the inmates appear to be in only marginally better shape. Gaffney must earn the trust of the horses—comparatively easy, given that such animals are her passion and her life’s work—but, even more important, she must earn the trust of the men and women for whom this ranch is a rare line of defense against a traditional and brutal prison culture. Both the animals and the humans are, in the words of one resident, “more than half broke.” Initially, Gaffney is in over her head and knows it, doubting her ability to help.
Still, something about the ranch compels her, and she keeps coming back, even though the program doesn’t pay her and pulls time from her other work. What emerges in Half Broke is more complex than a savior story: While Gaffney begins her memoir by focusing on vulnerable and damaged residents such as Flor, Sarah, Tony, Randy, and Eliza—who have records of prostitution, violence, addiction, self-harm, and victimization—Half Broke grows as her own history begins to unfold. Though the balance of the narrative remains on the ranch, Gaffney skillfully interweaves scenes from her past, revealing a time when she was reticent to share her lesbian identity. Her life was transformed by her love of horses, the support of her partner, and a mentor’s dedication. This is what she brings to the ranch, where she is helping herself as much as the residents.
Half Broke strips away the circumstantial differences that divide us to reveal our need not only for connection but also something to care for beyond ourselves. Though not overtly religious, Gaffney’s writing is infused with a spiritual reverence for ordinary things, and some of her most luminous prose connects the earthy and the holy. Of her grandmother, she writes: “Sometimes I thought I could smell God on her breath. Her hair-spray was thick and metallic-scented, and it stuck her thin, almost nonexistent hair flat onto her head. As she made the sign of a miniature cross onto her forehead, she would open her mouth and push out a breath—a bouquet of meat and vegetables; turnips, cabbage, pork. The fleshy scent of corporeal earth mingled with the residual aerosol. The mixture smelled like gilded earth, and I knew God wasn’t far away.”
It’s in physical labor, respect for nature, and teamwork that we find salvation, Half Broke asserts. Although the characters here—including the horses—are mostly well-developed, the larger truths of Gaffney’s story are applicable to many contexts. Even readers who have never ridden or don’t have a checkered past will identify with the necessity to move beyond both ego and our own demons to live in the present moment—the only place transcendence can be found.
Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction. Her memoir, Blow Your House Down, is forthcoming in 2021.
• By Ginger Gaffney
• W.W. Norton & Company, 272 pages, $25.95